Alex Ovechkin knew right away how badly he was missed. When he landed at Dulles International Airport on Monday afternoon, the Washington Capitals captain heard firsthand the sound of the end of the NHL lockout.
"People just recognize me and say, 'Hey, thanks very much for coming back. We can't wait to see you play,'" Ovechkin said. "It means a lot."
It means a lot to the Caps to have Ovechkin back from the Kontinental Hockey League, skating and preparing for the 48-game season that awaits. The star left wing had reservations about the new collective bargaining agreement and in September said he might stay in Russia if his contract was slashed, but there he was skating at the team's practice facility Tuesday.
"I want to find out what the deal is because if this lockout is done, it's done," Ovechkin said. "Sometimes you just think, 'Why [did] we do that?' But it's over, so I'm happy to [be] back. It was hard time, but I think everybody miss hockey so badly right now. It's nice to be back."
Ovechkin said from before the start of the lockout that he and other Russian players would likely stay there if the CBA meant salary reductions. Escrow will be higher for players, but there are no rollbacks.
General manager George McPhee didn't appear to have any doubt that Ovechkin would return to the Caps.
"He was coming back, and it's my understanding that within 10 hours of the handshake deal, he was packed up, moved out and on a plane," McPhee said. "He wants to play here, and it's the best league in the world. If you're a competitive guy, it's the place you want to be."
Home in Moscow is where Ovechkin spent the lockout, playing 31 games for Dynamo. The 27-year-old had 19 goals and 21 assists there, while playing with Washington teammate Nicklas Backstrom.
While many NHL stars, such as Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos, chose to remain in North America, Ovechkin, Backstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin were among those who played games for the past few months.
"I think it's going to help me and Backy and the guys who play some hockey," Ovechkin said. "Again, it's better to play hockey than sit out there and just come here and make a skate by yourself and do nothing because we're hockey players."
Soon enough, Ovechkin and the Caps will be able to play hockey again. Players are trickling into town this week, with training camp expected to open Sunday, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. Daly also said if the new CBA is ratified on time for that, the league will plan to start the season Saturday, Jan. 19.
A shortened training camp could make it difficult for players to get into game shape right away. But that's where Ovechkin has an edge.
"You would think that those players are going to be ahead of those players that haven't been playing," McPhee said. "I guess for that reason I kind of wish that they had all been playing. But there are pluses and minuses and we'll see. But I think for Ovi, he'll be ready to go."
One positive for the Caps is that there was more buzz Tuesday about the Russian-language shirt Ovechkin wore, which said, "What, I am the most beautiful one here again?" than about the winger being out of shape.
Oh, and Ovechkin came back fresh off getting engaged to tennis star Maria Kirilenko.
"It's a good feelings, you know? It's not that feeling anymore when you can do whatever you want; you have a girl with a tennis racket and she can hit you," Ovechkin said with a smile. "It's great feelings for me right now."
Those great feelings will translate over to his teammates, coaches and fans if Ovechkin is able to score like he did late last season. He finished with 38 goals, which would convert to about 22 in a shortened season.
But just having Ovechkin back in the D.C. area is nice for now. As of Tuesday, New Jersey Devils star Ilya Kovalchuk had decided to remain in Russia, at least until he can review the new CBA.
"I was in same position like him. I talk to him and I talk to Malkin, I talk to Datsyuk, I talk to all the Russian players there," Ovechkin said. "If they cut our contracts probably, I'll stay there."
But Ovechkin stayed in contact with the NHLPA and spoke to his lawyer and "financial guy," then boarded a plane back. Count coach Adam Oates among those happy to have him back from the KHL.
"It was good. Really good. Excited to see him," Oates said. "Glad he's in one piece."
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